Taiwan and 21st Century Chinese Realpolitik

Written by Aidan Hall.

Image credit: 總統慰勉海軍陸戰隊九九旅步二營 by 總統府/Flickr, license CC BY 2.0

Show Your Strength and Seize the Moment

The existence of China’s impressive military and economic strength is nothing new. It seems long ago that Beijing abandoned Deng Xiao Ping’s “hide your strength and bide your time” principle. To be sure, China is now more comfortable than ever being placed alongside the US and Russia as one of the world’s major powers. Awareness of China’s geopolitical significance is also nothing new. The West has long been mindful of China’s economic potential, geographic endowments, and military might, shown most apparently in President Obama’s “pivot” to the Asia Pacific in 2011.

What is new, however, is China’s use of its military and economic muscle to improve its geopolitical position in profoundly aggressive ways. These include authoritarian assaults on Hong Kong’s autonomy, deadly clashes on the Sino-India border, and island-building in the South China Sea. Such belligerence has even prompted talk of a ‘new Cold War’ with the US, and the EU to describe China as a “systemic rival”.

Perhaps the most worrying aspect of Beijing’s antagonistic behaviour in recent years, however, has been the issue of Taiwan. Since February and before, Chinese PLA Air Force and Navy have escalated military activity around Taiwan. Moreover, In May, at the opening of China’s National People’s Congress, Prime Minister Li Keqiang left out the word “peaceful” from the customary reference to Taiwanese reunification. In the same month, groups of Chinese nationalists were even heard calling for an outright invasion of the island.

New developments such as these have bought to the fore several questions. How do we best understand and explain China’s recent assertiveness, especially in the Asia-Pacific and towards Taiwan? And, once we have answered this, what does this tell us about the future?

Chinese Realism

To understand China’s actions in its near abroad, we must first understand Beijing’s long-term foreign policy ambitions and, more specifically, how it crafts them. Since Sun Tzu’s writing’s the 5th Century BCE, Chinese foreign policy has been steeped in the realist tradition. Thus, by understanding realpolitik, we come to learn of both the reasons behind China’s actions, as well as the unrivalled importance of one issue in particular: Taiwan.

Early 21st Century China is the antithesis of a status-quo power. In fact, as the University of Chicago Professor of Political Science John J. Mearsheimer argues in The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, China will strive to dominate Asia in the same way that the US dominates the Western Hemisphere, in effect emulating a Monroe Doctrine of the East. China will do this, Mearsheimer explains, because being the most powerful state in your region is the best way to survive in an anarchic international system – textbook realist logic.

China’s most crucial route to this primacy in Asia is through control of the South China Sea – an area of immense strategic importance. Although the region’s oil and natural gas stores and lucrative fisheries contribute to the sea’s value, these factors pale in comparison to the significance it gains from being the site of crucial maritime trade routes and the resultant PLA naval presence. Almost a third of global crude oil and over half of global liquefied natural gas passes through the South China Sea each year. In this way, it acts as the maritime energy highway of Asia. Prime recipients include China itself, but also the oil and gas dependent economics of South Korea and Japan as well as Australia. In its bid to control these routes, China has bolstered its naval presence in the region. This obviously worries those who hold interest in the continuation of free movement upon the sea’s waters. Today, such concerns mean the South China Sea is a core national security interest to almost every regional power.

Additionally, Chinese historians who reflect on what China calls their ‘century of humiliation’ recall that it was through the South China Sea that European colonial powers – Portugal, Britain and France – came to exploit it economically. In this way, it is also an acute awareness of history that drives China’s ambitions for control of this stretch of ocean. In sum, just as US control of the Mexican Gulf and the Caribbean Sea is key to US regional power, the South China Sea will be pivotal to China’s.

For similar reasons, in the coming decades, China will also seek to push foreign (particularly the US) naval presence beyond the zone within the ‘First Island Chain.’ This is an area of sea delineated by a line joining Japan, the Ryukyu Islands, Taiwan, the Philippines and the Greater Sunda Islands. This new Middle Kingdom, straddling continental and maritime Asia, will indeed define its future sphere of influence through this geographical lens.

Taiwan: Location, Location, Location

Pivotal to such a sphere is Taiwan – the vibrant, democratic thorn in Beijing’s side. The island’s geopolitical importance stems, however, not from its domestic politics, but its location. Taiwan is positioned 100 miles east of the Chinese mainland. To the south, it is 200 miles from the Philippines, 700 miles from China’s Hainan Island, and 900 miles from Vietnam and the South China Sea’s Spratly Islands. It is linked to the north by the Ryukyu Islands arc and lies 700 miles from Japan’s home islands.

In a very basic way, Taiwan’s sheer proximity to China forces Beijing to feel uncomfortable. Much like Washington’s fears over nearby Communist Cuba at the height of the Cold War, China feels that the proximity of a pro-U.S, island sized aircraft carrier is a blatant threat to national security in the event of a conflict. China’s concerns about Taiwan, however, are fuelled by far more than proximity induced paranoia. Taiwan is of unparalleled strategic importance because of its location concerning the South China Sea and First Island Chain – the two maritime spaces China is so keen to dominate in its bid for regional hegemony.

Situated at the northernmost point of the South China Sea, Chinese control of the island would function both as a further projection of power toward the South China Sea – allowing for stronger military presence in the region – but also, and perhaps more crucially, control of the gateway between the energy-consuming North-East Asia and sea lines of communication that operate through South East Asia. In the same way, control of Taiwan is likely to force Singapore, which is the largest beneficiary of open trade through the region, to think about its current refusal to establish deeper formal links with Beijing.

Furthermore, being the largest and most central island between Japan and the Philippine archipelago, and also the final extension of the Ryukyu Island Chain, Taiwan is vital to China’s aims regarding the First Island Chain. This is all the more important given Japan and the Philippines remain, ostensibly at least, US allies. If China controlled Taiwan, its submarines would gain a far easier exit from Taiwan’s deep-water ports into the Pacific. Subsequently, it would hold a more confident position to dominate the First Island Chain from.

Taiwan’s location is even of such paramount geostrategic value that it is also part of US regional goals too. Namely, the United States’ aim to contain the Chinese naval force far within the First Island chain to protect its local allies can only be achieved through the continuation of Taiwanese independence. As the United States naval General Douglas MacArthur explained back in the early 1950s:

I believe if you lose Formosa, you lose the key to our littoral line of defence … the Philippines and Japan both would be untenable from our military point of view… [F]rom our standpoint we practically lose the Pacific Ocean if we give up or lose Formosa.

Along the same lines, the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time commented that it was Taiwan’s location that gave it such importance:

The geographic location of Formosa is such that in the hands of a power unfriendly to the United States it constitutes an enemy salient in the very centre of our defensive perimeter

We would also do well to remember that it was the Japanese occupation of Taiwan that allowed it to launch bombers from the island to attack the Philippines and Pearl harbour, sparking WW2 in Asia.

Simply put, Taiwan is of unrivalled strategic and geopolitical importance, and no one understands this better than China. Beijing is fully aware that Taiwan, by virtue of its location, holds the key to the fulfilment of its bold foreign policy objectives. A Taiwan in Beijing’s hands is an Asia Pacific region strongly in China’s favour. Hence, we come to understand the reason behind Chinese aggression toward the island in recent years.

Notedly, although Beijing may talk about Taiwan in moral terms, insisting the ethical importance of national unification for all ethnic Chinese, in reality, as outlined above, China’s bid to control Taiwan is a manifestation of a strong Chinese realpolitik. As Robert D. Kaplan notes in The Revenge of Geography, “Taiwan illustrates something basic in world politics: that moral questions are, just beneath the surface, often questions of power.”

A View of the Future

What, then, does the near future hold in store? An outright invasion of Taiwan is unlikely any time soon – amphibious assaults are notoriously costly for the aggressor, and US naval presence in the region is still strong enough to make China nervous. This is particularly the case as Beijing looks across the Pacific at an unprecedentedly pro-Taiwan US administration. In addition, the surrounding Asian community will go to great lengths to resist a mainland invasion of Taiwan.

For now, therefore, Beijing’s goal is dissuasion: to accumulate enough military capability to force the US to think twice about entering the South China Sea and First Island Chain – effectively Tirpitz’s ‘Risk Theory’ in practice. Note, however, what is dissuasion – actions that change the behaviour of your adversaries – if not the very essence of power? China has controlled its seaboard in defiance of the West before, and it is becoming more apparent that it is quickly acquiring the ability and motivation to do so again.

In sum, by understanding realism, we can easily make sense of Chinese goals and actions in its near abroad. Through such a lens, we uncover that Taiwan is unequivocally the linchpin of Chinese regional primacy. Furthermore, if China’s extraordinary economic growth continues, its sheer ambition and dynamism, guided by a realpolitik, may become impossible to contain.

Aidan Hall is a current undergraduate at the University of Nottingham studying Philosophy, Politics and Economics.

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